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Winter Classic was a great day for hockey

by Phil Coffey
The late Bob Johnson may not have envisioned an outdoor game at Wrigley Field between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks when he first said, "It's a great day for hockey,"
but Badger Bob's favorite saying sure fit the bill when discussing New Year's Day 2009 inside "The Friendly Confines."

While perfection is not part of the human condition, New Year's Day at Wrigley came pretty close. The fans were tremendous, the weather reflected the whole "Winter Classic" concept, and the Hawks and Wings played a game that was a lot of fun to watch.

"It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing for some of us," Chicago's Patrick Sharp said. "And I definitely cherished it. If I could ever play in a game like that again I'd definitely love to. It was really cool being out there."

"We talked a lot about that, taking it all in as a group," Mike Babcock said. "You've got to enjoy the moment. We talked about that last year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, too. I really believe you should enjoy the process of what you're in and take it all in. Then when the puck's dropped, let's get playing.

"It was fantastic just being involved in the event. And, like I said, the Chicago Blackhawks and the National Hockey League I thought did a really good job. The only thing I would suggest is a little more free stuff for the coaches would be the only thing.

"I'm just kidding you. I thought it was a great event, and I thought to be part of it is special.  Now, I assume some people's seats were a little far from the action, but just to be involved in the event, to me, is a special thing."

"There's a lot of excitement surrounding the game," Hawks coach Quenneville said. "It was a great experience for everybody. You learn a lot. … The fans were great. The building was excited.  It was a special place to be and play, and certainly we are not happy with the way it ended up, but it was a privilege to be here today."

You cannot imagine the amount of preparation that goes into something like this, and for the entire NHL crew, the end result of Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 proved every bit of that preparation paid off handsomely to the point there is great interest in having more outdoor games in the coming seasons.

"That's one of those elements of speculation that actually is borne out by fact," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said following Thursday's 6-4 Detroit win. "We have lots of expressions of I thought.  I have no doubt that after today's event the number will be increased and those that have already expressed their interest will reinforce it.

"A lot has been said over the last six months about (Blackhawk President) John McDonough' persistence, and I'm sure there will be others who will be equally persistent going forward."

"I had a blast doing it, and I think all the NHL players should have a chance to play in something like this and be part of something like this," Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "I wouldn't endorse doing this every year, finding two good teams, two good rivalries, and finding an event you like, like Wrigley Field too. It was very exciting for both teams, I think."
"I have no idea where we're going next," Bettman said. "We haven't given it any thought.  I never like to look ahead.  I like to get through these one at a time, debrief, look at what we can improve, and there's always -- I can't think of anything right now -- but there's always things that we'll look operationally to do even better next time.  And then we'll look at the candidates and make some sort of judgment. It won't be a perfect science, but hopefully when we make the decision it will turn out like this to be a good decision."

Sights and sounds -- Wrigley field, retro uniforms, a flyover by two F-18 Hornets, legends like Bobby Hull and Ted Lindsay, the list goes on and on. The sights and sounds of hockey at Wrigley will live on long after we forget the outcome of the game.

"I think the favorite part was coming out of the dugout and seeing the crowd and seeing the excitement and people's faces and hearing the crowd noise, too," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "Just sucking everything in once you stepped on the field."

"Just coming out, like Nick said, coming out of that dugout and seeing the sight, it was pretty cool," said Wings defenseman Brett Lebda, a Chicago native. "You're usually on the other side of the fence there sitting in the stands.  And just to be out there and playing in a hockey game in Wrigley Field was a pretty neat experience."

For the Blackhawks, the feelings were similar.

"Before the game everybody was kind of looking around and trying to take the atmosphere and get accustomed to it," forward Patrick Sharp said. "But certainly the energy level was high to start. Everybody was pumped up. The pregame festivities were very exciting and we came out and played the way we wanted to, to start the game.

"I think it had an NHL game-like atmosphere," Sharp said. "I think the NHL did a heck of a job promoting the game and put together a facility that was pretty similar to everything we've been playing in all year. So the ice wasn't a factor.  It was a great experience, and it was just like a regular NHL game.

"It was a cool feeling," Patrick Kane said. "I think you go out and you see 45,000 fans screaming and yelling. It's a really cool feeling. I think just sitting on the bench and looking at the whole crowd, the whole atmosphere, it was really unreal.

"It was like it wasn't really happening," Kane said. "It's one of those things really fun to be a part of. And just looking around, it was a really good feeling."

All in all, an unforgettable memory for those involved.

"I think it exceeded my expectations," Lidstrom said. "I thought it was going to be a lot colder out there.  (Wednesday's) practice I think you put a couple of layers on weren't sure how cold it was going to be. But coming out there today, I dressed like I do for any other game. And I felt comfortable doing it, too.  And I don't think the wind or playing outdoors really bothered either team. I thought both teams really, once we started playing, I think we both played like it would have been an indoor game."

Blast from the past -- The opening faceoff of the game was a terrific acknowledgement of hockey's great past, with Bobby Hull and Ted Lindsay flanked by the likes of Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard.  Seeing former Cubs like Ryne Sandberg and Ferguson Jenkins also made the connection to Wrigley's full-time job all the more real.

"It was fantastic," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "You know, the City of Chicago in itself is special. And then Wrigley Field and then they march out all these people that you watched as a kid, and, I mean, the whole atmosphere and the crowd and the professionalism.

"And I think the Chicago Blackhawks are going to set a new standard for the NHL in marketing.  And I was very impressed with Thursday."

Weathering the weather -- Any venture like the Winter Classic walks a fine line because of the elements. Heck, that's one of the reasons why there is so much interest in the game, man vs. nature.

During Wednesday's practice session, it looked like a sunny day would cause problems with the players' ability to see. Hence the images of Hawks and Wings wearing eye black and sun glasses. Thursday, the weather cooperated with an overcast sky that removed glare as a major problem and also helped ice conditions.

Sure, some snow like the 2008 game in Orchard Park, N.Y., would have been picturesque, but all in all, Mother Nature cooperated. Thanks Mother Nature!

"I was worried about the wind because I've been in here when it's been howling, and it can whip through here pretty good," Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda said. "And it wasn't too bad. The ice was a lot better (Thursday) than it was (Wednesday). And I think with this new system, I think they'll just get better and better as they do it and learn every year.  So it wasn't bad.  It was playable and both teams had to deal with it."

"I didn't think it was a factor," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "The puck seemed to really bounce off the goaltenders a lot. That's probably to do with being cold. The guys were telling me you get a little tightness in your chest, you don't last as long on the ice.  But other than that, I didn't think conditions had any bearing on the outcome of the game whatsoever."

"I think it helps goalies, when they -- without the sun," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the overcast skies. "I thought the glare off the ice and with the sun itself, you can lose sight of things.

"There're some funny bounces," he said. "And I think with goalies, it's tough without getting your angles, without certain landmarks outside of the ice rink.  So it was challenging, and I think simpler around the net works, but they've got some guys that can do that and make nice plays too.  So that's the area that they made a nice couple plays that made the difference."

Viva le difference! -- Another aspect that made the Winter Classic stand out for Mike Babcock was the fact it was different.

During the course of the season, the majority of games are played in the evenings and each day tends to follow a similar routine. By its very nature, the Winter Classic is decidedly different.

"A fair part of the day for me I think just coming out and the excitement of the people and the weather and the facility," the Wings coach said. "All that just being a part of it, I think, was special.

"Having your kids and being on the ice with them in the practice (Wednesday) was, our guys were like they were 12-years-old out there. … That's what makes it so good.  It's energizing.  It's not Ground Hog Day again. In the National League, lots of times it's Ground Hog Day."

"It was a special game for everybody," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville agreed. "And it wasn't just another game. And I thought we brought that intensity knowing that we needed to play against - we had to bring our best game against them.  And they played some very important games last part of the last season, and they know what it's like to play big games, and this to me was a big game and a big experience, and they responded well. And I just think that the way we came out was what we're looking for, but at the same time this wasn't just another game."

Disappointment for Hawks -- While the Blackhawks were delighted with the Winter Classic experience, being beaten twice in three days by the Red Wings left plenty of glum faces in the Chicago dressing room.

"It was pretty disappointing," Patrick Sharp said. "I think it was a great opportunity for us as an organization to show how far we've come as players to show everyone the strides that we've taken as a team. It's unfortunate that the game ended the way it did, but they're defending Stanley Cup champions for a reason. And there's a reason why they won that game. So it's a learning. It's a lesson that we can easily learn from the way the game went out there and we've got to keep getting better for the future."

Hawks captain Jonathan Toews was of a similar opinion

"It's hard to right now," Toews said. "Like Patrick said, I think it's definitely a tough pill to swallow.  It's so exciting, everything leading up to that game, the National Anthem, the fireworks, the whole at months fear in the building, I think it's unbelievable.

"And we wanted to do it for ourselves but most of all we wanted to do it for the fans and everybody that supported this team for so many years.  And it was a pretty big game.  It goes beyond just the players that are out there playing on the ice.     So I think, like I said, it's disappointing that we couldn't come out with a win.  I think it was a pretty sinking feeling in the locker room.  I don't think going into this game today there was … we were definitely not thinking about losing.  That was not on our minds at all."

Respect from Wings -- The Red Wings are Stanley Cup champs for a reason. They were not caught getting caught up in the atmosphere or looking ahead. The Red Wings saw the Blackhawks win nine games in a row and knew Chicago couldn't be taken lightly.

"We knew coming into these two games they're only a few points behind us in the standings," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "They've been playing real well. They won nine in a row, so we knew coming into the series that we had to come out and play real well.  I think the team has been responding well to challenges like this, too.


"The guys really got up for playing the Blackhawks," Lidstrom said. "We know they're a good, young team, and you have to be prepared when you play them."

Chicago native Brett Lebda said the Hawks' resurgence has added more luster to the Original Six rivalry.

"Growing up a Blackhawks fan, deep down, I like to see Chicago hockey back on the map," Lebda said. "And for us and Detroit, it's a rivalry that's been waiting, I think, to be rekindled. And now, because of their success, I think it has. This game just puts it that much more over the edge."

"You want to win this game because 10 years from now, when they ask you who won the Winter Classic, you get to say, 'We did,'" Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "But the points are very important."

The Chicago players also realize the rivalry has taken on a new dimension.

"I think last year we talked about the wins and the way we played against Detroit and how we kind of snuck up on them a few times," captain Jonathan Toews said. "I don't think we can do that anymore.

"I think they definitely sent a message a couple of nights ago.  And they stepped up and played the same pace and the same type of game," he said. "It's tough that we came out with the lead and they just kept coming at us. They're so consistent. They've got four lines of guys that play the right way. And, like I said, they just kept coming. And they were tough to play against all over the rink, so it's a tough one, and like I said you've got to give them credit as well."

"Having said that, we're not going to lay down for them," Toews promised. "We're not going to give up. We're going to continue to try to get better. We've had two-goal leads in three of the four games we played against them, and they managed to keep coming and fight back. There're lessons to be learned there. We're going to try not to make excuses, but we are a young team and we're trying to learn in those tough games how to win them.  So we'll go from here."

"They're the best in the world," Patrick Kane said of the Wings.  "That's what they proved tonight. I think they're a team that can just take over when they want to. They have so much experience and so many great players that just seems like they can go on whenever they want and take over. You see with games like, they beat the Sharks 6-0 this year, they beat us 4-0 the other night, and then they took it to us when we were up there. So we got to learn how to play against them. We're a young team and we have to learn how to play in those games, but that's why they're the best in the world."

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